The politics of birth control – I

Blr Bytes recently sent me this link, and it provided me with the impetus to write about something I’ve been meaning to address for a while: birth control. Rohit’s article is partly a response to Pamela Philipose’s piece in the Indian Express, but is also a well-argued case for legalising sex-determination, on the same grounds as are used to argue for women’s reproductive rights – primarily, in western discourse, the right to abortion.

The western (primarily American) debate on abortion rights has a number of themes: female reproductive health, reproductive autonomy, foetal ‘rights’, paternal rights. People who self-identify as feminists and ‘women activists’, as Rohit calls them, have taken positions on both sides of the debate. The legal right has been rooted in many things, from the right to privacy to women’s autonomy. In India, on the other hand, the law on abortion starts not with the Medical termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, but with the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The IPC makes it an offence to terminate a pregnancy, and the MTP Act, taking note of the fact that this merely led to unsafe terminations, made it legal for pregnancies to be terminated by registered medical practitioner(s) in certain circumstances. The MTP Act is, therefore, conferring the privilege of legality upon certain kinds of abortions. The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) is meant to regulate the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, and especially to criminalise their use for sex-determination. The privilege of legality of the use of prenatal diagnostic technology is again granted selectively, to ‘approved’ persons, for ‘approved’ reasons.

Thus the law in India quite shamelessly seeks to regulate reproduction – it takes a number of crucial decisions out of the hands of parents and puts them in the hands of the State, or of doctors. It takes the power to make decisions about reproduction away from women, and on the basis of their disempowerment, makes the use of certain kinds of technology unavailable to them as well. To give them back the power, and ensure that they have the autonomy to use it, the State would have to decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs.

In Part II (which I don’t have time to write just now)

What then, of female foeticide? If abortion and PNDTs are decriminalised, there would be no way to ensure that sex-selective abortions didn’t take place, would there?


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